Chance encounters of a connected kind

My article published in Dialogue section of The News on Sunday, Sept 26, 2009


By Beena Sarwar

Dr Sarwar, Karachi, Jan 2007. Photo by Anwar Sen Roy

Dr Sarwar, Karachi, Jan 2007. Photo by Anwar Sen Roy

There is something about unexpectedly bumping into unexpected people and making meaningful connections on various levels.

The common thread running through two strings of such encounters I had recently was my late father, Dr M. Sarwar — his being who he was, and his passing on, led to these moments and the associations they evoked.

The first string started when, ignoring disparaging comments by friends about ‘snail mail’, I went to the post office. There had been heavy thundershowers in Karachi a couple of days earlier, but the roads were less inundated than before, thanks to the storm drains inserted under several main roads (during agonisingly long-drawn out construction periods). A large pool of rainwater blocked the gate of the low-lying post office. An unexpectedly courteous policeman guided me to a side entrance. Inside, marks on the post office walls indicated the 2-3 feet of water that had inundated it.

How did they salvage the place, I wondered aloud. Credit went to the cleaners (still industriously wiping off stains from the walls), said the supervisor, who turned out to be Qadir of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (CMKP).

For all its small size the CMKP has made waves with Laal, a band comprising CMKP members. Laal has popularised the revolutionary poet Habib Jalib amongst the younger generation, starting with their first number, a rendering of Jalib’s satirical ‘Mein ne uss se yeh kaha’ (I told him this). They used visuals of the mayhem in Karachi on May 12, 2007, as political and civil society activists faced bullets while heading for the airport to receive the then deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhry. Over 40 people were killed that day. This musical response to May 12 was a huge hit on YouTube. Their first album took off when Geo TV launched it (with revised visuals – but then, they owe their larger audience to this compromise).

I remember meeting Jalib at a book launch at the Karachi Press Club in 1981 or so with my father, who rarely forayed out. “Do you know who this man is?” Jalib asked me, my father towering over him. “This,” he added affectionately, “is my guru”. Dr Sarwar hemmed and hawed and pooh-poohed. Jalib grinned.

'Akhtar: Tujh Sa Aur Kahan Se Laein' (1959) edited by Ibne Insha

‘Akhtar: Tujh Sa Aur Kahan Se Laein’ (1959) edited by Ibne Insha

Dr Sarwar’s role in the 1950s student movement had made him an icon for many. I was posting the CD of an audio interview of my father to Farooq Sulehria, a journalist and activist with the Labour Party Pakistan whom I’ve known since our Lahore days. The package also contained the photocopy of a book edited by the poet Ibne Insha about Sarwar’s older brother Akhtar, a journalist who had died early. These people have passed into history but their legacies and dreams for a progressive society with universal education and justice live on.

FerozaanAs I left the post office, a man arriving on a motorbike removed his helmet and greeted me — Mehmood Alam Khalid, editor of Farozaan, a monthly environmental magazine in Urdu, that he was kind enough to share with me.

He said he was planning to visit me with the reference of Iqbal Alavi, one of the founders of the Irtiqa Institute of Social Science, a platform for progressive writers, youth and intellectuals. Iqbal Alavi, my father’s fellow-activist and jail-mate, had initiated the reference for Dr Sarwar at PMA House, Karachi.

Another voice said hello. The post office was a happening place. It was the soft-spoken psychiatrist Dr Shifa Naeem whose husband Naeem Sadiq persistently writes and sends open letters to the relevant authorities, aimed at steering the country towards a secular, progressive vision that grants its citizens dignity (see a recent article by him on freedom of information). Shifa and Naeem were among the founders of the War Against Rape, an NGO that takes up issues of violence against women.

Naeem’s long-standing causes include a crusade for public toilets. A recent one, which seems to be getting more results, involves questioning Karachi’s army-run Defence Housing Authority (DHA) about a form real estate buyers had to fill that included their ‘religion/sect’. Naeem’s campaign led to the DHA backtracking with the belated announcement that there is “no need to fill out ‘religion/sect’ column”. Naeem responded by asking why they did not modify the form instead of issuing press briefs.

The prominent Justice (retd.) Majida Rizvi was among the signatories to his plea to the Sindh High Court seeking clarification about “the requirement of Religion and Sect from its application forms and other related documents, so that the citizens of Pakistan are not discriminated or divided on the basis of religion or Sect.” The court has since taken suo moto notice (vide C.P.No D-1861/2009).

Another string of connected encounters started as my mother and I flew to Lahore to participate in a reference for Dr Sarwar initiated by the energetic Dr Farrukh Gulzar, a ‘follower’ as he puts it.

Across the aisle in the plane sat Khurram Sohail, a young journalist and playwright I had met at T2F, that ‘more than a coffee shop’ happening place. As we talked, a child of about 10 or 11 sitting next to Khurram occupied herself with an iPod. I had seen her in the departure lounge with a slim blonde woman in shalwar kameez and Pakistani man in jeans and t-shirt. This was shortly before Independence Day, and their green hats emblazoned ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ attracted much friendly attention.

The parents were seated in a row removed behind us. The child sitting on her own was open and friendly, unafraid to talk to total strangers. She said her family lived in the Boston area. She had visited her father’s country Pakistan before, loved it, and even spoke a little Urdu.

Her father Dr. Rafay Mehdi joined us, standing in the aisle to chat. He is a medical doctor at Harvard; his wife Heather Schmid is a well-known singer (twice nominated for the Emmy). She was doing a benefit concert in Lahore for the internally displaced persons from Swat.

Happy landing: Dr Rafay Medhi and Heather Schmid. Photo: Beena Sarwar.

During the 2005 earthquake, Rafay had been among the doctors who had come to help out in Kashmir. Heather called, wanting to join him. He tried to dissuade her. “What will you do here?”

“I’ll do what I can, I’ll sing for them.”

“What if someone plants a bomb under the stage?”

“Then, you can tell people, ‘she died doing what she believed in’.”

“That’s the kind of woman she is,” he added. “After that I didn’t try to stop her. She came and did concerts to raise funds for the earthquake survivors.”

Syra has obviously inherited this eagerness to connect with people. She refused Rafay’s suggestion that he take the seat in the middle row and let her sit with Heather. “I want to meet people,” she told him. “I can’t do that if I’m sitting with you or mom.”

Rafay vacated the aisle space so Heather Schmid could talk to us. Her card introduces her as an ‘international recording artist’ with a company called Goddess Inc. She talked about her awakening interest in Sufi music. Khurram, who always travels with a collection, gave her several suggestions. He had already hooked Syra onto Coke Studio and she sat cheerfully listening to his Ipod while we talked. Heather passed along her iphone to us – we heard a bit of her powerful, uplifting hit single ‘Touching Down’. There were also photos of her at the Grammy awards – the closest we’ve come to this ceremony!

On Saturday, after the reference for Dr Sarwar at the HRCP, we attended a performance by Nahid Siddiqui’s students at the open-air theatre at Peeru’s Café – a wonderful space created by the Peerzadas on the outskirts of Lahore next to their Museum of Puppetry, itself the first such institution in Pakistan.

Choreographed by Nahid Siddiqui, a delight to watch. (Photo: Beena Sarwar)

Choreographed by Nahid Siddiqui, a delight to watch. Photo: Beena Sarwar

The performance was a soul-stirring experience. Pakistan’s foremost Kathak dancer has developed her own style of Kathak, set to Kafis, stripped of ornamentation; she often even does away with the traditional ‘ghungros’ (ankle bells) in order to keep attention focused on the form. Besides the choreography, she had composed the taranas she used, and rendered the vocals along with her cousin, the talented Fareeha Zafar. Young Hasan, Nahid and Zia Mohyeddin’s son played the tabla – a calling he has taken up professionally.

At the end, as we mingled, we bumped into the family from the plane. They were with singer Fareeha Parvaiz – she and Heather are talking about collaborating musically.

I later forwarded Heather a press release from Junoon’s Salman Ahmad in New York about his concert for Pakistan on September 12 at the UN. She promptly offered to donate a performance at the concert. It did not materialise, given the short notice — but here’s to more chance encounters of a connected kind.

Postscript to post office encounters: my Sweden-bound registered parcel reached its destination in less than a week. Thank you Pakistan Post.


One Response

  1. Beena
    Hope all well
    Just saw your photo when we met on the plane.
    Hope to see you soon.
    Let us know how are you doing
    You can find Heather’s Unity Song Phelay hum Pakistani hay on Facebook
    She sang in Urdu as a gift to people of Pakistan on 14 th of Pakistan. The song was created in US.


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